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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

"and we must enquire the way of strangers-"

near Schutt
 I grew up on a five-generation farm in the (relatively) gentle countryside of Prince Edward County, "the fat south with inches of black soil on the earth's round belly" in the words of one Al Purdy. A Sunday drive for our farmer father was a rare break from work and worry, an opportunity to check out other farmers' industry or lack thereof.

On any tour through farming country, I still hear dad's voice commenting on slovenly fencelines and poorly stored equipment, or fine fat cattle and good crops. On drives into the north (as central and north Hastings County was known) dad would talk about the "poor farms" and sympathize with the futile efforts of the farmers there.  I was awakened to the inequity of land grants, the dishonesty of the colonization road promises, the plain bad luck of farmers taking a stand in this rocky and unforgiving place.

These days, in the hard country of North Hastings county, the resonance is deeper still, as I hear the voice of Al Purdy wherever a turn in the road reveals a tumble-down barn, a log house never replaced by a newer better frame home, a fence going back to the earth, piles of hand-picked stones.

 "and where the farms are
                  it's as if a man stuck
both thumbs in the stony earth and pulled

                               it apart
                               to make room
enough between the trees
for a wife
               and maybe some cows and
               room for some
of the more easily kept illusions-"

 "This is the country of our defeat
                   and yet
during the fall plowing a man
might stop and stand in a brown valley of the furrows
                 and shade his eyes to watch for the same
                 red patch mixed with gold
                 that appears on the same
                 spot in the hills
                 year after year
                 and grow old
plowing and plowing a ten-acre field until
the convolutions run parallel to his own brain-"

"...a little adjacent to where the world is
a little north of where the cities are and
we may go back there
                                 to the country of our defeat..."

All quotations are from 'The Country North of Belleville', first published in The Cariboo Horses (1965). Only by reading the entire poem, aloud, preferably in a stony North Hastings field, can the power of this most beloved of Purdy's poems be truly appreciated.

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